Two documentaries about Dean Reed (who?) provide long-lost Cold War time capsules.

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Particularly in the early days after the East Bloc imploded, visiting westerners would scratch their heads at any local mention of Dean Reed, the American pop star. In turn, East Germans, Czechs and Russians would express befuddlement.

How could Americans not know about Dean Reed?

Three days ago, I found myself unable to remember the name of “that American singer in East Germany back then.” Google promptly schooled me, and then YouTube sweetened the offer.

I hadn’t planned on spending several hours watching videos and reading remembrances of a fellow whose unlikely (red) star already was fading prior to his untimely death 31 years ago, but as regular readers of NA Confidential know, the history of late-period communism has an enduring grip on me, primarily because I had the good fortune to see a wee bit of it first-hand just before the end.

The boy can’t help it. Yes, Roger’s on a Commie Jag again.

Truth be told, it’s likely that my very first exposure to Dean Reed came in 1986, courtesy of the infamous segment on 60 Minutes. I finally made it to the GDR three years later, but by then Reed was dead, and I’m fairly certain I didn’t know about his passing until my fellow East German student summer workers told me. By this time Guns ‘N’ Roses was a thing, even in Karl Marx Stadt — not exactly Reed’s bailiwick.

Dean Reed was born in Denver. He went to Hollywood in search of careers singing and acting, and improbably, he found them. Armed with a few minor American hit songs, Reed traveled to South America in the early 1960s and discovered he was an idol on a par with Elvis.

Amid the Cold War dualism of the time, Reed also abruptly became “woke” as a socialist. One thing led to another, and after stints in Argentina, Chile and Italy, he surfaced in East Germany. There he embraced the party line, made his home (a very nice one, too), became a superstar in the Warsaw Pact, and later fell victim to internal cognitive dissonance and external geopolitical shifts.

American Rebel, the older of these two documentaries (1986) doesn’t purport to be a critical examination of Reed’s various careers on the other side of the wall. However, it’s entertaining, and about as much a period piece as can be imagined from a time that still feels all too immediate to me.

We really talked about those things all the time, didn’t we? It might as well have been 300 years ago, not 30. 

The Red Elvis gets slightly closer to the central questions of Reed’s life (and death), as summarized in this passage from a separate essay.

Over time Reed recognized the contradictions between his idealistic world views and the reality of life in East Germany, but he didn’t know what to do about them. As the years passed, he also saw his fame and star power fade. A new generation barely knew who he was. People who knew him well have said he longed to return to the US, but his socialistic, Marxist views and actions would have made it impossible for him to make a living in the land of his birth – especially after his 1986 appearance on 60 Minutes. Only six weeks after that TV interview his body was pulled out of Lake Zeuthen (Zeuthener See) near his home at the southern tip of East Berlin.

There has been much speculation about Dean Reed’s death. Was it a suicide (as most of his East German friends and family think), a strange accident, or was it something more sinister? We may never know, but he was known to be very depressed and suicidal in the weeks before his death. Dean Reed was caught between two worlds, between two countries, in a trap of his own making.

More from a fan site which looks to have been functional since the Internet’s dawning: Dean-Reed-Archiv-Berlin.

Finally, from the guy who literally wrote the book on Dean Reed: The life and mysterious death of a rock ‘n’ roll radical, by Chuck Laszewski (Twin Cities Daily Planet).

As usual, I’m deeply moved by material that will seem almost comical to many, but who else except Dean Reed could connect Phil Everly and Egon Krenz?

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

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